Multitasking Produces an "Illusion of Competence"

Last Updated Mar 11, 2011 7:31 PM EST

I've blogged before about the trouble with multitasking, pointing out studies that show those who divide their attention are actually less able to prioritize and screen out irrelevant information. But there may be one more problem with this common way of working: those who multitask are not only out to lunch mentally, but also fail to realize their thinking is impaired.

An in-depth article in The Chronicle of Higher Education takes a look at the latest research on multitasking among students, but its insights could just as easily be applied to the office. And exactly what do the latest studies say? One of the scariest thing about multitasking is the "illusion of competence" it creates:

That illusion of competence is one of the things that worry scholars who study attention, cognition, and the classroom. Students' minds have been wandering since the dawn of education. But until recently--so the worry goes--students at least knew when they had checked out. A student today who moves his attention rapid-fire from text-messaging to the lecture to Facebook to note-taking and back again may walk away from the class feeling buzzed and alert, with a sense that he has absorbed much more of the lesson than he actually has.
"Heavy multitaskers are often extremely confident in their abilities," says Clifford I. Nass, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. "But there's evidence that those people are actually worse at multitasking than most people."
The fascinating article goes on to explore what drives people to multitask (is it the lure of the new task or avoidance of the difficulties of the old one?), how the minds of those with a strong ability to focus differ from those of multitaskers, and whether it is hopeless to fight the urge to multitask in our media saturated world. It's well worth a read.

Read more on BNET:

(Image of frantic multitasking by Jagger, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.